Thursday, May 18, 2017

Salutes Dead Sailors and Writers With Plenty of Spirit(s)

St. Francisville Salutes Dead Sailors and Writers With Plenty of Spirit(s)
By Anne Butler

bourbon tastingLiterati leavened with “bourbon strolls” and graveyard dinners under the live oaks…dead bodies sent off with vintage dancing and period tunes…weekly peeks at 19th-century medical practices at home and on the battlefield that most often ended in the cemetery as well, plus those wild and wacky Zouaves, the Civil War’s most colorful troops. The staid and stately live oaks must be in a state of shock, but visitors to St. Francisville in June are promised a heck of a good time.

“Come for the literature. Stay for the feast,” promises the fourth annual Walker Percy Weekend June 2-4 with activities scattered throughout St. Francisville’s picturesque National Register-listed downtown. Called “intellectually serious but broadly accessible,” the weekend is filled with panel discussions and entertaining presentations by Percy scholars, readings, photo exhibit, and eat-drink-be-merry social and culinary events including summer-weight bourbon cocktails and crawfish boiled by those famous Hot Tails chefs.

musicParticipants register Friday, June 2, at The Conundrum Books & Puzzles on Ferdinand St. from 3 to 5:30, then mosey on down to beautiful oak-shaded Grace Episcopal for what is called “Lost in the Churchyard, an elegantly provisioned reception and cocktail party.” Saturday’s presentations include “Walker Percy and the Benedict Option: Confronting the Culture of Death,” “Walker Percy and the Burden of History,” “The Devil Went Down to Georgia: Flannery O’Connor and the Religion of Me, Myself and I,” “Walker Percy’s Blues: Suffering and Self-Discovery in Love in the Ruins,” and “Memoirs of a Mississippi Boy.” Those who survive the presentations may revive themselves from 5:30 to 7:30 on the Progressive Front Porch Tour and Bourbon Tasting, followed by the Crawfish and Craft Beer Celebration with live music and dancing. Added this year is a Bourbon Tasting Tent with premium bourbons to sample.

What, you may ask, does the late acclaimed Covington author Walker Percy have to do with West Feliciana Parish? Plenty, having used some iconic sites including the state pen at Angola and the River Bend nuclear plant in his famous works, as well as a somewhat fictionalized version of the whole parish. Not to mention all the family connections, because the St. Francisville area has had a Percy under practically every bush---sheriffs, farmers, cattlemen, even one cattlewoman who famously drove a herd of steers to LSU in Baton Rouge to pay her tuition during the Great Depression---ever since the very first Percy arrived in West Feliciana while it was still part of Spanish West Florida, established the family foothold and then drowned himself in a fit of despondency in Percy Creek, foreshadowing the sad propensity toward suicide that seemed to run through the generations of the author’s family.

seminarAnd the progressive bourbon-tastings on front galleries throughout downtown St. Francisville pay tribute to Percy’s memorable essay called “Bourbon, Neat.” As he explored in his works the search for meaning in an increasingly materialistic society, Percy applauded the application of a few shots of bourbon daily to “warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cut the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons.” What, he wondered, “if a man comes home from work every day at 5:30 to the exurbs…and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: ‘Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?’” Hoist the bottle.
Proceeds benefit the Freyhan Foundation’s ongoing efforts to restore as a community cultural center the area’s first public school building, a stately brick structure overlooking the Mississippi River with a grand third-floor auditorium and an outdoor amphitheater down the hill. For tickets and schedule of events, visit www.walkerpercyweekend.org or email info@walkerpercyweekend.org. Contributions are deductible to this 501 © (3) arts organization.


soldier
by Darrell Chitty
The following weekend, June 9 and 10th, an event is celebrated that a 1937 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune called “one of the strangest born of the War Between the States, when fighting men could battle to the death and yet know chivalry, when war had not become the cold-blooded butchery of today.” And indeed, the twentieth anniversary celebration of The Day the War Stopped is a Civil War re-enactment like no other, for instead of blazing guns and battles, this is a tribute to the universality of the Masonic brotherhood that could take precedence over anything happening in the outside world.

In June of 1863, as the siege of Port Hudson pitted 30,000 Union troops against 6,800 weary Confederates as they fought over the all-important control of traffic on the Mississippi River, a shot rang out in the captain’s stateroom of the USS Albatross, patrolling off the coast of Bayou Sara/St. Francisville. The vessel’s commander, John Elliot Hart of Schenectady, New York, lay mortally wounded on the floor.

Attempts to find a metallic coffin the ship the body home were unsuccessful, so the ship’s surgeon, a Mason, went ashore in hopes of arranging burial on land; Commander Hart, a Union naval officer, was also a Mason, and in St. Francisville was the second oldest Masonic lodge in the state, its senior warden a Confederate cavalry officer fortuitously at home on furlough.

And so the war was stopped, if only for a brief mournful moment, as Masons in blue and gray joined the Episcopal rector in burial services. Today this rare moment, a compassionate ceasefire in the midst of a bloody conflict, has been re-created every year for two decades, with re-enactors in Union and Confederate garb, a few of them actual descendants of original participants and others from Hart’s New York lodge.

war stoppedThis year’s Day the War Stopped also marks the bicentennial of St. Francisville’s Feliciana Lodge #31 F&AM, so on Friday evening, June 9, there will be graveside histories in the hauntingly beautiful cemetery surrounding Grace Episcopal Church where Hart rests in peace, followed by a special historical presentation at the Masonic Lodge just across Ferdinand St. On Saturday, June 10, the lodge serves lunch from 11:30 to 12:30, preceded at 10:30 a.m. by a concert of vintage music at Grace Church’s parish hall and followed by vintage dancing in the same location. A presentation saluting the Masonic Lodge bicentennial takes place 12:30 to 1:30, then a heart-touching little play about Hart’s homelife is followed by the re-enactment of his burial from 1:30 to 2:30. Further celebration of the lodge bicentennial takes place from 6 to 11 p.m. at the Austin Daniel home on Joe Daniel Road in Elm Park, with music by the Delta Drifters, crawfish and barbeque, plus drinks; reservations for the After Party are required, and tickets to this event are $25, but all the other activities are free. For information, see www.daythewarstopped.com online or Facebook The Day The War Stopped.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

The main house at Oakley is temporarily closed for lead abatement, but the visitor center and grounds remain accessible and planned programs continue, in June with special weekend focus on the plantation apothecary (early medical practices with many medicines coming from the herb garden), Civil War medical practices and surgery, an exploration of historical recreation for Take A Kid Fishing day, and a look at some of the Civil War’s most colorful units, the LA Zouaves. For information, telephone 225-635-3739.

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit  www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Francisville’s Latest Literary Celebration
By Anne Butler

Miracle worker Missy Couhig, co-owner of The Conundrum Books & Puzzles in St. Francisville, was already deeply involved in two adult book festivals---a relatively staid mid-winter one featuring four published writers presenting their varied works to adoring readers, and a mid-summer downtown progressive Eat-Drink-Be Merry one celebrating the late lamented Louisiana author Walker Percy.

IMG 2313The Conundrum has a wonderful selection of children’s books and puzzles, and frequently hosts visiting authors and illustrators with great appeal for the smallfry. And so, when Missy Couhig happened into an ABA session on children’s book festivals a few months back, she determined to perform a miracle by organizing one in St. Francisville. In an amazingly short period of time she managed to persuade a number of writers and illustrators to participate, ramping up the fun level with sidewalk chalk art competitions, storytelling tent, facepainting, crafts, and plenty of readings. All this takes place May 6 in conjunction with national Children’s Book Week, with activities for youngsters at oak-shaded Parker Park, and for middlers and high schoolers lunch, movie and YA author discussions at the West Feliciana Parish Library, where a special display celebrates the 75th anniversary of Little Golden Books.

Festival theme is “Reading Gives You Wings,” as reflected in the logo designed by Thomas Gresham, its bird-like open books flying the reader into amazing adventures. Books are available for autographs and purchase, but presentations and activities are all free. The inaugural West Feliciana Children’s Book Festival has already gained national recognition as the “Cool Idea of the Day” online at the newsletter called Shelf Awareness: Daily Enlightenment for the Book Trade. This is one of the state’s first festivals designed to appeal strictly to children. Park hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; library activities begin with brown-bag lunch, screening of movie at 12:30 p.m., and presentation by authors following.

FullSizeRenderParticipating children’s picture-book authors who will read and sign books in the park include Mom’s Choice Award winner Leif Pederson of the popular Swamp Kids series: Pierre’s Pirogue Parade, The Missing Chord and A Dog Named Cat. Also reading their books for storytime are authors Steven Spires (The Three Little Shrimp and The Oak Tree) and Todd-Michael St. Pierre (Chicory & Roux: The Creole Mouse and the Cajun Mouse). Tracey Koch and Lauren Hawthorne, author and illustrator of Georges: The Goose From Toulouse Who Only Ate Couscous, will lead an interactive presentation and story time, while illustrator Chuck Galey also interacts in the crafting tent. Demonstrating illustrating will be Mike Artell, author and illustrator of Jacques and De Beanstalk, Three Little Cajun Pigs, and Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood. From 10:30 to noon, famed photographer/author CC Lockwood will sign his book for children, CC Lockwood’s Louisiana Nature Guide.

Young Adult author Shalanda Stanley, whose fiction book Drowning is Inevitable is set in St. Francisville, has degrees in creative writing from Florida State and special ed from UL Monroe; her PhD from LSU is in curriculum and instruction with a focus on reading and literacy education. she will speak on her book and her craft at the library after the screening of the Disney movie “Geek Charming,” based on the book by author Robin Palmer, who will also be present to discuss her work.

An extra added attraction will be the presentation of student-written books on the Galapagos Islands, inspired by the travels of Advanced Placement Human Geography/World Geography instructor Nicole Means, chair of the Social Studies Department at West Feliciana High School. These young authors, Sydney Corbin, Madison Pollet, and Morgan Chism, whose books focus on making a positive impact on our world, will autograph and give away for free some 50 copies of their books.

IMG 3611Complete information is available online at http://www.conundrumbooks.com/west-feliciana-childrens-book-festival, email Missy@Conundrumbooks.com, or telephone 504-427-0421.
On Sunday, May 7, the St. Francisville Symphony Association presents the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra’s St. Francisville Chamber Series “The Tempest,” at 3 p.m. at Hemingbough. Viola/composer Christian Frederickson joins the symphony’s Chamber Players and Of Moving Colors in this world premiere collaboration. Tickets are available at the Bank of St. Francisville (telephone 225-635-6397).

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (the main house at Oakley is closed for lead abatement, but the visitor center and grounds remain accessible and planned programs continue).

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit www.westfeliciana.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Life Lessons from Audubon's Birds

Life Lessons from Audubon’s Birds
By Anne Butler
oakley2Beloved historian and preservationist Libby Dart always said St. Francisville’s Audubon Pilgrimage tour of historic homes and gardens had as much to teach the locals as the visitors---an appreciation of area heritage, a spirit of community, a sense of place, all still relevant today. And this year’s pilgrimage taught in a new way another lesson from what might be called a bird’s eye view: appreciate what you’ve got, because when it’s gone, it’s gone.
While the popular annual tour as usual featured fabulous historic homes, hosts decked out in 1820s costumes, glorious gardens and a rural homestead recreating old-time crafts and skills, this year’s pilgrimage had a welcomed new focus on its patron saint, artist John James Audubon and his short but productive stay in West Feliciana Parish. Hired in 1821 to tutor the young daughter of Oakley Plantation, where he was paid $60 a month and had afternoons free to walk in the woods and study the birds, the artist would complete more than 70 of his life-sized bird drawings in the St. Francisville area and over 100 in Louisiana, more than in any other state.
The lush landscapes and rich bird life left the flamboyant artist so spellbound and inspired that the St. Francisville area is well represented among the 435 hand-colored prints made from engraved plates that were released in a series over the period from 1827 to 1838. On the 2017 pilgrimage dedicated to his memory, a remarkable exhibit of museum-quality reproductions of most of his West Feliciana birds was mounted in the 1819 Audubon Market Hall on Royal St. Each was identified as to location, whether at Oakley, Bayou Sara, Beech Grove, Tunica Swamp, Beech Woods, Sleepy Hollow, St. Francisville, Thompson Creek or simply Feliciana.
passenger pigeon2Many of the birds he found in the area are still around today, but some are not. The passenger pigeon, for example, in the 1850s was the most abundant bird in North America, maybe even the world, with 19th-century migrations darkening the skies and some 136 million breeding adults devouring farm crops and nesting in trees whose overloaded branches would sag to the ground. But by the 1890s wild flocks numbered in the dozens rather than hundreds of millions. The once prolific Carolina parakeet (parrot) was hunted for sport and meat into extinction. The Ivorybilled Woodpecker was another one lost, though some optimists still hold out hope of finding a few in remote areas; the last of this huge bird was said to have been shot, and by a state legislator who should have known better.
Extinction of certain bird species had a number of causes, mostly habitat loss due to rural agriculture and urban sprawl, pesticides impacting egg shells, wholesale slaughter for food or fun, even the popularity of feathers as millinery decoration (the great snowy egret has fortunately made a comeback after being nearly wiped out as hunters slaughtered adult birds for their curling nuptial plumage, often leaving nestlings to die unattended).
The last Great Auk in the British Isles was clubbed to death by islanders convinced it was a witch due to its awkward appearance with tiny wings and large white spot on its head; the population of these penguin-like birds had already been decimated for their down used to stuff pillows. When they’re gone, they’re gone. By the same token, there are those today who advocate for the removal or destruction of reminders of offensive or divisive events or eras in history. Far better, it would seem, to leave them that we might appreciate what they have to teach us and learn their lessons.
murrell paint2And from these losses do come lessons. Local artist/naturalist Murrell Butler, who marvels at what Audubon must have seen in this vast habitat teeming with birds, notes some successful comebacks, notably bald eagles, wild turkeys, egrets, roseate spoonbills that were also killed for their rosy plumage, even a tiny resettled population of whooping cranes. And he also points out that there are some new species that have arrived in the state since Audubon’s time…English sparrows, European starlings, cattle egrets probably blown by hurricane winds from Africa in the fifties first to the Bahamas and then the mainland U.S., new types of doves from Europe and Mexico, and others.
This is an artist who preserves in paintings wildlife from the past as well as present; his most recent series of oil on canvas paintings of Bayou Sara creek will be revealed at a reception at Backwoods Gallery in St. Francisville on May 25 (5-8 p.m.). Now in his 80s, he recalls the beauty of the creek, with nesting wading birds, migratory Canada or blue geese, even a trumpeter swan seen by his grandfather in the thirties, and clear water and deep swimming holes. Now he sees the creek full of discarded garbage, when as a child he remembers its water so clear he could drink from it.
But he also sees hope, with a resurgence of interest in birding and in keeping waterways like Bayou Sara clean for kayaking and other recreations. And in St. Francisville itself, under the guidance of popular nine-term mayor Billy D’Aquilla and some sensible zoning regulations, the little river town seems to have struck the right balance between preservation and progress. Passengers debarking from visiting steamboats rave over the charm of this Main Street community, which actually owes much of its successful survival to the fortunate mix of commercial and residential structures giving it a 24-hour presence downtown, keeping it very much alive.
ButlerWildTurkeys2Of course there have been flush times and lean years, too; all was not moonlight and magnolias, and some historic structures were regrettably lost. But much has been preserved, and the 1700 or so town residents count their blessings as they stroll the bricked sidewalks beneath overhanging live oaks, past whitewashed picket fences and gingerbread galleries, lawns abloom with azaleas or camellias or crepe myrtles depending on the season, and front porch rockers beckoning after a busy day.
Consistently on the list of most beautiful small towns across the country, St. Francisville also has a small bookstore among the top ten in the state, enormously popular festivals celebrating music and art and literature and history and holidays, fun family-friendly special events, some top-notch overnight accommodations, restaurants with a surprising variety of ethnic origins, and beautifully restored plantations in the surrounding countryside open for touring. Not to mention recreational opportunities in the extensive parish sports park, at The Bluffs golfing resort, and in the Tunica Hills…hiking, biking, bicycle racing, birding (of course), tennis, kayaking on Bayou Sara, hunting and fishing.
And so while the losses must be regretted, at the same time lessons must be learned from them. What’s left that is unique and significant must be appreciated and preserved and built upon, because when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Surfside Pelicans2The month of April is full of activities in the St. Francisville area, beginning April 1st with an Easter Egg Hunt for children at Rosedown State Historic Site from 1 to 5; the plantation gift shop also has a special Civil War exhibit throughout the month. April 16 Arlin Dease hosts the spectacular Easter Sunrise Service, nondenominational and free for all, in the lakeside Greek amphitheater at Hemingbough. The enormously popular Angola Prison Spring Rodeo and Craft Show draws crowds Saturday and Sunday, April 22 and 23; grounds open at 9 a.m., rodeo starts at 2 p.m., and visitors are advised to remember that this is a penitentiary and regulations should be followed to the letter. April 28 Grace Episcopal Church provides an acoustically perfect setting for Baton Rouge Symphony’s concert featuring a string quartet, while the Tunica Hills Music Festival is set for April 29. For information, refer to www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, andNatchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination.  A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (the main house at Oakley is closed for lead abatement, but the visitor center and grounds remain accessible and planned programs continue).
Fugitive Poets2The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit www.westfeliciana.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Audubon Pilgrimage Heralds Spring

Audubon Pilgrimage Heralds Spring in St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler

pilgrimage poster 17 PRThe forty-sixth annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 17, 18 and 19, 2017, celebrates a southern spring in St. Francisville, the glorious garden spot of Louisiana’s English Plantation Country. For over four decades the sponsoring West Feliciana Historical Society has thrown open the doors of significant historic structures to commemorate artist-naturalist John James Audubon’s stay as he painted a number of his famous bird studies and tutored the daughter of Oakley Plantation’s Pirrie family, beautiful young Eliza. A year’s worth of planning and preparation precedes each pilgrimage, and with 46 years of experience under their belt, society members put on one of the South’s most professional and enjoyable pilgrimage presentations. This year’s featured homes include Wyoming Plantation, St. Clare House, Hillcroft and Wildwood, plus a welcome new emphasis on birds.

Audubon arrived at the Mississippi River port of Bayou Sara by steamboat in June of 1821 and walked up the hill into St. Francisville, where he was to meet Eliza Pirrie and her mother at nearby Wyoming Plantation for a brief rest and repast before journeying to Oakley. Besides its Audubon connections, Wyoming also had enormous relevance in the social and political life of the St. Francisville area. Begun in the early 1800s, the plantation would be the home of Louisiana’s last antebellum governor. The original home burned, and by the 1920s the property belonged to Sam Vinci, who had emigrated from Italy as a 17-year-old with big dreams. The extensive Wyoming property was purchased in the 1980s/90s by Sam’s granddaughter, the late Elaine Vinci, and her husband Leonard Sullivan, who turned the house into a magnificent but livable showplace filled with fine 19th-century furnishings by such famous makers as Prudent Mallard and Alexander Roux.

By the time of Audubon’s arrival, the Bayou Sara area had endured years of cyclical flooding by the Mississippi River, and many of the residents deserted the little port city for the safety of St. Francisville’s high ground, where Catholic monks from across the river had long come to bury their dead. It was right after the disastrous 1912 flood that tug captain James Aubic moved his family up the hill and had a house built behind Our Lady Of Mount Carmel Catholic Church by his brother-in-law, carpenter George Baier, no doubt using some salvaged building materials. Recently beautifully restored, shaded by ancient live oaks and century-old camellias, this is now owned by the church as the comfortable home of the Catholic priest, Father Cary Bani. He has named the elegantly simple home St. Clare for one of Francis of Assisi’s devotees, in keeping with the patron saint of the town itself and the church devoted to Our Lady.
hillcroftAcross from the Catholic Church is regal Hillcroft, reigning over the western end of Royal Street from its landscaped hilltop setting and crowned by a rare widow’s walk overlooking the Mississippi River. Of neo-classical colonial revival design with columned entrance portico and rear double galleries, the house is one of St. Francisville’s largest, but was built for Judge Samuel McCutcheon Lawrason for a mere $5000 beginning in 1903 on what had been a cow lot and fruit orchard. In 1925 Hillcroft was purchased by a relative and namesake of the judge, sugar chemist Samuel Lawrason Butler, whose granddaughter Julie and husband Mitch Brashier have sensitively adapted the historic home to an active lifestyle including yet another Sam, their young son.


wildwood siteWildwood and its preservation-minded occupants have been integral parts of the Audubon Pilgrimage since its inception. The house was on the very first pilgrimage in 1972, and two generations of owners have served as pilgrimage chairwomen in different years (1975 and 2001) as well as being involved in every aspect of the annual tours every single year. Once a profitable cotton plantation, in 1915 Wildwood was purchased by Albert Lee Soule, president of the Soule Commercial College in New Orleans, as a weekend retreat from the city. Specifications for the 7,000-square-foot three-story farmhouse, designed by his architect brother to feature such innovations as inside bathrooms, closets and intercoms, called for assuring “all work done or materials furnished shall be first class in every respect.” In 1958 the property was purchased and revitalized by Conrad P. and Frances McVea, educators and dedicated preservationists, and now Wildwood is home to the next generation: Tom McVea, former state representative, farmer and cattleman, inveterate collector of vintage wood that somehow always comes in handy when restoring an old place, and his wife Toni.

Other features of the 2017 Audubon Pilgrimage include Afton Villa Gardens, Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, three 19th-century churches in town and beautiful St. Mary’s in the country, as well as the Rural Homestead with lively demonstrations of the rustic skills of daily pioneer life. Daytime features are open 9:30 to 5, Sunday 11 to 4 for tour homes; Friday evening activities are scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m., Saturday soiree begins at 7 p.m.

woodpeckersThis year’s pilgrimage has a new and welcomed focus on Audubon’s birds, for he painted 32 at what is now the Audubon State Historic Site, over 60 in the Felicianas, and more in Louisiana than in any other state. Audubon Market Hall hosts an exhibit of Audubon prints daily and Friday evening, featuring those birds rendered across West Feliciana in such locales as Beechwoods and Beech Grove Plantations, along Bayou Sara, in the Sleepy Hollow woods and the Tunica Swamp. Also on exhibit will be Audubon-inspired paintings by talented local artist Patsy Dreher and middle school art students. Of great interest will be morning presentations at Audubon State Historic Site featuring three widely respected local ornithologists guiding nature walks and giving bird talks on grounds trod by Audubon himself in 1821: Friday 9:30 to 10:30 or 11 a.m. featuring wildlife/landscape artist Murrell Butler; Saturday 9:30 to 11 a.m. featuring author/photographer C.C. Lockwood; and Sunday 9:30 to 11 a.m. with Dr. Tom Tully, LSU vet school avian specialist.

The Historic District around Royal Street is filled during the day with the happy sounds of costumed children singing and dancing the Maypole; in the evening as candles flicker and fireflies flit among the ancient moss-draped live oaks, there is no place more inviting for a leisurely stroll. Friday evening features old-time Hymn Singing at the United Methodist Church, Graveyard Tours at Grace Episcopal cemetery (last tour begins at 8:15 p.m.), and a wine and cheese reception at Bishop Jackson Hall (7 to 9 p.m.) featuring Vintage Dancers and the pilgrimage’s exquisitely detailed 1820’s evening costumes, nationally recognized for their authenticity. Light Up The Night, the Saturday evening soiree, features live music and dancing, dinner and drinks beginning at 7 p.m.

For tickets and tour information, contact West Feliciana Historical Society, Box 338, St. Francisville, LA 70775; phone 225-635-6330 or 225-635-4224; online www.westfelicianahistoricalsociety.org, email wfhistsociety@gmail.com. A package including daytime tours and all evening entertainment Friday and Saturday is available. Tickets can be purchased at the Historical Society Museum on Ferdinand Street.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Writers and Readers Flock to St. Francisville

Writers and Readers Flock to St. Francisville in February
By Anne Butler

A mecca for creative souls ever since John James Audubon painted dozens of his Birds of America studies in the St. Francisville area in 1821, this little rivertown now harbors artists, musicians, designers, authors, and even talented rock painters who relish its peaceful atmosphere and stimulating environs. And for the past ten years the slow cold month of February has been enlivened by the Writers & Readers Symposium, now sponsored by A Celebration of Literature and Art, that draws interested readers and writers from a wide area to hear published authors of all genres speak about their creative processes and mingle with enthusiastic fans. This year’s symposium is slated for February 18 from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at beautiful Hemingbough Conference Center just south of St. Francisville, LA. Sure to be a popular addition is a separate but related Writers Retreat.

Featured professionals presenting at this year’s Symposium of Writers and Readers are Louisiana’s current Poet Laureate Peter Cooley; award-winning memoirist Melissa Delbridge; novelist Deborah Johnson ; and Rheta Grimsley Johnson, who will also lead the Writers Retreat.

debra johnsonBorn in Missouri, raised in Nebraska, resident of San Francisco and then Rome for many years, award-winning novelist Deborah Johnson lives in Mississippi now, setting for her riveting novels The Secret of Magic and The Air Between Us, which won the Mississippi Library Association Award for Fiction for its insightful take on human nature and endearing cast of characters. The Secret of Magic won the 2015 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and was a finalist for the Earnest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Johnson found inspiration for this book while researching the United States’ first African-American Supreme Court justiceThurgood Marshall and one of his NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s first civil rights causes of the postwar era, a black veteran purposefully blinded when a policeman used a billy club to punch out both of his eyes.

melisssa delbridgeMelissa Delbridge, recently retired as archivist at Duke, is the author of the witty and wise Family Bible, called “a gritty coming-of-age story set on the banks of the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with everything one expects of the Deep South: incest (some willing, some not), guns, bourbon, insanity, Jesus, fast women, cheating men. But Melissa Delbridge explodes and exploits these clich├ęs into something startling and new, and in spite of the horror aroused by some events, it’s a hell of a fun ride. Delbridge’s ability to bring such joy to her readers through narratives that contain so much quiet sorrow is a true testament to her understanding of what it means to persevere.” Said another reviewer, “Reading it was like going to a reunion. Family Bible took me home.”

Peter CooleyAlso presenting at the Writers and Readers Symposium will be Louisiana’s current Poet Laureate Peter Cooley, Midwest native with a doctorate in Modern Letters from the University of Iowa (his Writers’ Workshop dissertation was a book of his own poetry) who has lived for a number of years in New Orleans, where he is Director of Creative Writing at Tulane University. His poems have been published in more than 100 anthologies and over 700 magazines. His nine books of poetry include Divine Margins, A Place Made of Starlight, The Astonished Hours, and most recently Night Bus to the Afterlife dealing with Hurricane Katrina. Besides having taught at universities across this country and abroad, he has also had the challenging opportunity to present writing workshops “in a mental hospital, a prison, in pre-schools, grade schools, high schools, and to the elderly, the socially disadvantaged, and the illiterate.” If he can hold the attention of such diverse audiences, surely he can captivate a group of rapt readers and writers anxious to hear about his meticulous approach to his demanding craft.

rheta johnsonBack by popular demand for the Writers and Readers Symposium is award-winning journalist and accomplished author Rheta Grimsley Johnson, who has covered the South in all its glory for four decades. Following years as an intrepid reporter for newspapers both large and small in iconic southern locales like Birmingham, Memphis and Atlanta, Johnson began writing columns syndicated nationally to hundreds of papers including the Advocate, columns celebrating what Encyclopedia Alabama calls “seemingly average southern people whose stories she elevates to the universal.” It is precisely this fond look at our foibles and fascinating off-the-wall places and people that won Johnson the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award for human interest reporting as well as the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1991.

Johnson also writes books. In 1989 she published Good Grief, The Story of Charles M. Schulz, the authorized biography of the creator of “Peanuts.” Other published books, moving memoirs of life with husbands, dogs, and assorted other characters, include Poor Man’s Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana; Dogs Buried Over the Bridge; Hank Hung The Moon and Warmed our Cold, Cold Hearts; and Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming. The titles alone promise warm and witty and sometimes heartbreaking recollections of experiences that resonate with readers who grew up in the South. We know those people. We ARE those people! And Johnson vividly captures a time and place to which we can all relate, for she sees beyond the surface to the very soul, with love and laughter and, yes, more than a few tears. On those rare occasions when she turns her searing glance to contentious contemporary issues, her columns are cut-to-the-bone honest, like it or not. Johnson and her handsome husband Hines Hall, retired Auburn history professor, divide their time between Fishtrap Hollow and The Pass in Mississippi these days.

After individual author presentations, Writers and Readers Symposium participants are treated to lunch and homemade desserts, followed by a panel discussion led by lively local writer/artist Carolyn Thornton. Tickets for the symposium, $55 in advance or $65 at the door, are available online at www.brownpapertickets.com or through OLLI at LSU. For additional information, contact oliviapass@bellsouth.net.

Those participating in the Writers Retreat (preregistration required; separate fee) led by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a workshop welcoming both fiction and nonfiction authors including beginners, will get together for a wine and cheese reception at Hemingbough on February 18 from 5 to 7 p.m., then enjoy both breakfast and lunch during the actual workshop February 19 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular.

Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday). In January Oakley features programs called “12th Night Tea” for mothers and daughters on January 7th (preregister by calling 225-635-3739), and “Breaking the Chains” on January 14th, an examination of the 1811 Louisiana slave rebellion plus a look at slavery on this particular plantation. Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site from January 9 through January 22 presents a special well-researched slant to its house tours debunking the inaccurate myths repeated all too often on historic home tours.

The St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit www.westfeliciana.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).